|The following is
an excerpt from The
Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In the Dark by Carl Sagan.
Articles & Essays
The Dragon In My Garage
"A fire-breathing dragon lives in
Suppose (I'm following a group
therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make
such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself.
There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but
no real evidence. What an opportunity!
"Show me," you say. I lead you
to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old
tricycle--but no dragon.
"Where's the dragon?" you ask.
"Oh, she's right here," I reply,
waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
You propose spreading flour on
the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
"Good idea," I say, "but this
dragon floates in the air."
Then you'll use an infrared sensor
to detect the invisible fire.
"Good idea, but the invisible
fire is also heatless."
You'll spray-paint the dragon
and make her visible.
"Good idea, but she's an incorporeal
dragon and the paint won't stick."
And so on. I counter every physical
test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
Now, what's the difference between
an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and
no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable
experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my
dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all
the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions
immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have
in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you
to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
The only thing you've really learned
from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something
funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply,
what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination
would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously?
Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human
Imagine that, despite none of
the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So
you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon
in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against
it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and
see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not
being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative--
merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved."
Imagine that things had gone otherwise.
The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the
flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint
reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical
you might have been about the existence of dragons--to say nothing about
invisible ones--you must now acknowledge that there's something here, and
that in a preliminary way it's consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing
Now another scenario: Suppose
it's not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including
people who you're pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you that
they have dragons in their garages--but in every case the evidence is maddeningly
elusive. All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction
so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We
speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding
out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I'd
rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European
and Chinese myths about dragons weren't myths at all.
Gratifyingly, some dragon-size
footprints in the flour are now reported. But they're never made when a
skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close
examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another
dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare
physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities
exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides
the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence"--no matter how important
the dragon advocates consider it--is far from compelling. Once again, the
only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis,
to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might
be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange
Articles & Essays